Build your own Book Festival

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John Kenyon, guest columnist

Two years ago, we had the great fortune of presenting an Iowa City Book Festival featuring two Pulitzer-winning authors with strong Iowa ties in Marilynne Robinson and Jane Smiley. An attendee at the Smiley event stopped me and said, “You obviously had an Iowa theme to this year’s festival. What will the next theme be?”

Our theme that year was actually something closer to “amazing authors with new books out who said yes when we asked them to appear,” but I took the compliment in stride, and wondered about the next year’s festival. We stuck with that theme, and again presented a festival that attendees said they thought would be difficult to top.

For this year’s festival, Oct. 4-9, we again sought out a mix of writers who would be able to speak on a number of different topics and who represent various styles and genres.

However, we seem to have stumbled onto the theme first articulated by that attendee two years ago, because our schedule is full of authors with Iowa ties — writers who live here, teach here, studied here and moved on, or who write about our state.

We have another Pulitzer winner with local ties in novelist Robert Olen Butler, a University of Iowa graduate who went on to write many critically acclaimed novels. His latest is Perfume River.

On the other end of the experience spectrum is Nathan Hill, whose The Nix is one of the best-reviewed debut novels in recent memory, with the New York Times saying he has “talent to burn” and likening him to Thomas Pynchon and John Irving. I worked with Hill at The Gazette’s Iowa City office more than a decade ago, and I’m pleased to bring him back to town.

We have Iowa-based poets in Jennifer L. Knox, Ryan Collins and Anais Duplan, Iowa fiction writers in John Domini and Kali VanBaale, and mystery novelists with Iowa ties in beloved former Deputy Sgt. Donald Harstad and Minneapolis-based UI grad Allen Eskens.

Those writing about Iowa also make up a big part of our lineup this year. Dan Barry, a New York Times reporter who wrote about disabled men forced to work at a processing plant in Atalissa, revisits that story in the acclaimed Boys in the Bunkhouse. Claire Hoffman, a well-respected magazine writer, recounts her time growing up within the sphere of Fairfield’s Maharishi International University in Greetings From Utopia Park. Tom Shroder writes about his grandfather, the Iowa-born MacKinlay Kantor, in The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived, while Julie Rubini writes about the Iowa-born Nancy Drew scribe in Missing Millie Benson.

The list goes on. And that’s not the only list. If you are interested in issues of race, Leonard Pitts, Jr., Roxane Gay, and Crystal Chan are not to be missed. Are international politics and immigration of interest? Come hear Suki Kim and Okey Ndibe. If you love poetry, the aforementioned writers will be joined by a contingent of visiting Irish poets from our fellow City of Literature in Dublin. Medicine? Try Angelo Volandes or Leslie Jamison. Travel? Check out Tom Lutz. Science Fiction? F. Paul Wilson’s Panacea is a ripping read.

The above only scratches the surface of what is on offer. With more than 100 presenters in 60 events over six days, you can build your own Book Festival, find your own themes, and curate your own experience. The full schedule and author bios can be found at It’s all free and open to the public. Join us!

• John Kenyon is executive director of the City of Literature. More information:

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